Oscar Wrap-Up: Why Avatar Lost

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20th Century Fox / WETA / Reuters

Actors Sam Worthington, left, and Zoe Saldana as Jake and Neytiri in Avatar

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2. Size. Over the decades, the membership has shown a fondness for small dramas with an obvious social message and a prejudice against gigantic science-fiction pictures that use pioneering techniques to create a compelling new world — albeit with their own obvious social message. Avatar is every bit as political as The Hurt Locker in its eco-friendly theme, and much more boldly anti-military: by the end of the movie, viewers are meant to be cheering for the deaths of the U.S. soldiers trying to occupy Pandora. It didn't help. The Oscar voters saw Avatar (if they did watch it) as just another genre film. No sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture.

3. The Shock of the New. Not to generalize about old people, like the typical Academy member, but every one of them is resistant to change or novelty. Anything new in movies seems less like progress and more like a renunciation of the artistic standards they were nurtured on. Consider that in 1942, the Academy gave its top awards, Best Picture and Director, to John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, a poignant evocation of a Welsh mining town. Fine, honorable, fully worthy. The film it beat: Citizen Kane. Who needs all those low-angle shots, the deep-focus cinematography, the oblique, multifaceted view of a powerful publisher? Those aren't innovations; they're ostentations — cinematic showing off. Thus the Academy blew its chance to give due homage to what is still considered the greatest American movie.

4. The Grudge Report. Maybe the Oscar voters simply hate Cameron; apparently that's an easy and widespread feeling in Hollywood. The evening provided ample evidence that some categories were a popularity contest — not among the mass of viewers but the 5,000-plus Academy voters. They may as well have scrawled, "We like you, we really like you," on their ballots next to the boxes checked off for Best Actress Bullock (The Blind Side) and Best Actor Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart). The victors' chief competition, Meryl Streep and Clooney, were two more examples of the haves: 16 Oscar nominations (but no win since 1983) for Streep, and radiant Clooneyness for George. What do you give the man who has everything? Nothing. Same with Cameron, whose $2.5 billion worldwide take for Avatar will let him cry all the way to the bank, which he could now buy.

So the top-grossing film of all time was creamed by the least-seen film ever to win the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's top prize. Even the Argentine director took home one more Oscar than Cameron did on Sunday night. Hell, the hippie Swedish dude who did the sound editing and mixing for The Hurt Locker out-statuetted Cameron two to nothing. And at the end of the broadcast, co-host Steve Martin kidded, "The show is so long that Avatar now takes place in the past." Now that's just piling on. By then, Cameron was the underdog. Martin should have made a joke about that have-it-all The Hurt Locker.

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